Pitching From Behind Not an Issue for Lackey and the Cubs

During the offensive surge that characterized the Cardinals for most of the second half of the season, the one thing that opposing pitchers didn’t want to do was fall behind in the count to them.  From the All-Star Break through the end of August, Cardinal at bats that began with a 1-0 count ended up with the Cards hitting .333/.460/.573.  Twenty-nine of those 672 plate appearances ended with the Cardinal batter hitting a home run.

As August has faded into September, however, this has ceased to be the case.  Whether the team is feeling the pressure of the pennant race, or whether many of the young players are running out of gas, falling behind the Cardinal hitters is now where you want to be.  During the month of September so far, 196 Cardinal hitters have watched the first pitch miss the zone for ball one.  Those batters have gone on to hit just .232/.385/.464.  While the .385 on base percentage looks healthy, throughout all of major league baseball (courtesy of baseball reference) the average on base percentage for all at bats that begin with ball one is .388.

Yesterday afternoon – in an abbreviated appearance – Chicago veteran John Lackey schooled the Cardinal hitters (young and old).  He threw only 46 strikes among his 74 pitches, and only half of the 18 batters he faced saw first-pitch strikes.  He spent the 4.2 innings that he worked yesterday delivering pitches on the corners of the strike zone, and showing little concern – for the most part – whether the pitch resulted in a ball or a strike.  (The spectacular exception to this, of course, was the 2-2 pitch that John thought that he had struck Carlos Martinez out on.  This was the pitch that led to the bruhaha that got Lackey and his catcher tossed from the game).

Up until that point, what Lackey did that was sort of spectacular in its own right, was that he almost never gave in to the hitter.  Even behind in the count, he kept pitching to the black.  The middle-of-the-plate cutter that Martinez singled on was about the only timed all afternoon that Lackey gave in to a hitter.  The 9 batters who saw ball one from John finished 0 for 7 with 2 walks (one intentional).  His effort set the tone for the rest of the game, as St Louis finished just 1 for 14 (.071) in at bats that began 1-0.  Lackey wouldn’t be around long enough to get the decision, but the Cubs would shortly take advantage of a lack of composure on the part of Martinez to cruise past the Cards, 8-2 (box score).

The afternoon continued the sudden cooling overall of the Cardinal offense.  They finished the day with just 7 hits, and are now hitting .236 overall this month.  September, in the midst of a playoff push, is an inopportune time for a team to go into a batting slump.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty did have another misadventure on the bases, but this one was mostly bad luck.  His ground ball shot past third, headed for the corner.  But, as Piscotty was turning around first and chugging toward second, the ball caromed off the jutting corner of the left field stands and shot all the way back to the infield, where Javier Baez retrieved it and threw Piscotty out at second.  It was that kind of day at Wrigley.

Even so, Stephen finished with 2 of the Cardinal hits, and continues to re-establish himself.  Piscotty is now up to .289 (11 for 38) for the month of September, and .295 (18 for 61) since his return from Memphis.

Yadier Molina

From the break through the end of August, Yadi was a .396 hitter (19 for 48) when the pitcher fell behind him 1-0.  Chicago reliever Pedro Strop did that in the seventh inning yesterday, but Yadi ended the at bat flying out on a 1-2 pitch.  For September, Yadi is now 3 for 15 (.200) after getting ahead in the count 1-0.

Kolten Wong

A September mostly dominated by back issues is beginning to drag down what has been to this point a breakthrough season for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats yesterday, Kolten is now down to .192 for the month (5 for 26).

Harrison Bader

In a year of rookie firsts, Harrison Bader has hit his first real dry patch as a big leaguer.  After yesterday’s 0 for 3, Harrison his hitting .130 (3 for 23) over his last 7 games.  He has gone 8 games without driving in a run.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil is pitching almost exclusively now in low leveraged situations.  Yesterday he pitched the seventh trailing by 6 runs.  Still, it was a very crisp inning – he set down all three batters faced (two on strikeouts) on only 13 pitches.  Cecil has now strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings (covering 6 innings) during which he has allowed just 4 hits.  He has generated 18 swinging strikes from the last 59 swings taken against him – a healthy 31%.

Where in the World is LeGarrette Blount

As we open our first NFL discussion of the season, it didn’t escape my notice that LeGarrette Blount is no longer lining up in the New England backfield.  Those who may remember, I considered Blount last year to be one of the great under-utilized weapons in football.  He surprisingly finished with 1161 yards last year – surprising because his opportunities were so irregular.

He had four different games last year where he rushed for over 100 yards.  He had 4 other games where he had less than 15 carries.  LeGarrette is the sledge-hammer back that wears down a defense as the game goes along.  Fifteen carries isn’t enough to even get him warmed up.  If he had played in an offense that would feature him – the way that Dallas features Ezekiel Elliott – his numbers would be comparable.

If you are the New England Patriots, however, and you have an embarrassment of offensive talent, then it’s understandable that Blount may not get a featured role every game.  If you are the Philadelphia Eagles – the team whose uniform Blount now wears – it might be a little less defensible.

In his Philadelphia debut last Sunday, LeGarrette finished with 46 yards on 14 carries.  I know the Eagles are extremely high on young QB Carson Wentz, but even if Wentz is the next Tom Brady, a more balanced offense would be a substantial boon to Carson’s development.

Carson, by the way, had a big day on Sunday (26 of 39 for 307 yards and 2 touchdowns) leading the Eagles to a 30-17 win over Washington (GameBook).  He made more highlight reels, though, for his backfield elusiveness than for his pocket passing.  If Carson spends the entire season getting chased around like he was on Sunday, the Eagles season will probably fall far short of expectations.  All the more reason to balance the attack.

Speaking of New England

The Patriots have given Blount’s role to a former Buffalo Bill named Mike Gillislee.  He ran for all three touchdowns that New England scored on Thursday night.  Mike is a tough and intelligent runner, who can certainly get low at the goal line.  But he is not the weapon that Blunt was.  As the season wears on, I think the Patriots will miss having that dominating presence.

Speaking of a dominating presence, Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt lit up the defending champions for 148 rushing yards (101 of them on 10 second half carries).  Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill looked pretty dominant, too in Kansas City’s 42-27 dumping of the Patriots (GameBook).  The Patriot defense will be a work in progress.  My strong recommendation to the Saints and everyone else who will face New England in the early going is to take advantage while you may.

Some Love for Some Weary Defenses

Both Seattle and the New York Giants lost tough first week matches, and both offenses have issues.  A lot of the defensive numbers were nothing to write home about, but both were impressive in their own right.

In their 17-9 loss to Green Bay (GameBook), the Seattle defense was on the field for 39 minutes and 13 seconds as the Packers ran 74 offensive plays to only 48 for the Seahawks, and outgained Seattle 370 yards to 225.  Yet, Green Bay’s only touchdowns came on a 6-yard drive after Seattle turned the ball over deep in its own territory, and a 32-yard touchdown strike from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson when Green Bay quick-snapped, catching Seattle trying to run in substitutions.

For as dominating as the Packers were in the game, kudos to the Seahawk defense for keeping it as close as it was.

In Dallas, the Cowboys were on their way to dealing the Giants a similar dose of domination.  They held the ball for 20:33 of the first half, out gaining New York 265-49.  At that point, Dallas had 87 rushing yards on 18 carries, and QB Dak Prescott had thrown for 183 more, with a 91.8 passer rating.  They led 16-0 at the half.

Now, the way this script normally plays out is that the weary defense collapses as the fourth quarter wears on, and he Cowboys break the game open.  None of that happened this time. The bloodied Giant’s defense held Dallas to just 127 second half yards.  Elliott had 11 second half carries for only 43 yards (3.9 per), and the Giants actually held a time-of-possession advantage of 16:19 to 13:41 after the intermission. Dallas cruised on to its 19-3 win (GameBook), but the Giant defense made a statement.

So did the Giant offense.  That was the problem.

Football is back.  Week One is in the books.  The long journey has begun.

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